Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

The Silicon Beast

While playing human opponents is the best way to improve your game, not everyone has the time to go down to your local chess club and play. San Francisco has the oldest chess club in the country, the Mechanic’s Institute. The place is amazing, except for one thing, parking! I really don’t enjoy getting into a fistfight with an eighty seven year old woman over the city’s last available downtown parking space. The first time she beat me up, I thought it mere luck. The third time, I realized I was a wimp. While this didn’t really happen (well, once when I was seventeen), it serves to illustrate a point, sometimes you just can’t make playing at a chess club a reality. This is where chess software comes in handy. I’ve been training for a series of corresponding matches and over the board (OTB) tournaments this summer and my sparing partner has been Fritz and Houdini.

I happen to reread a wonderful book by Andrew Soltis, titled Studying Chess Made Easy. Any student of the game should have this book. As much as I’d like to claim the following thoughts as my own, they come from this brilliant book. These thoughts regard how you should set up your software program as an opponent.

Training starts with investing in a real chess playing program. While there are a plethora of chess apps available, most of them aren’t very good. Those free chess apps you can download for your tablet tend to play poorly with Stockfish being the exception. The problem with Stockfish is that it plays too well for beginners and intermediate players. This is where programs like Fritz and Houdini come in. Both give you the ability to find a level that works for you.

You want the program to be playing at a slightly higher level than your rating. If your rating is 1200, try playing against the program set at 1400. If you don’t know your rating or you’re new to chess, try playing the program at it’s lowest level. If you win easily, adjust the rating to a higher level. Repeat the process until the program’s play becomes challenging. When you find the ideal playing level, you should be winning 25% of your games against the machine, not 100% of the games. When you start winning 50% of your games against the computer, crank the program’s rating up a notch. Note that as your rating rises and you set the program’s rating higher, you need to do so in smaller increments.

Soltis makes a great suggestion regarding bad positions. If you end up with a bad position, don’t resign. Instead, switch sides, taking over the program’s position. Then see if you can take advantage of that better position. How do you know your position’s bad? Besides the feeling of dread in your stomach, you can check the evaluation function. It’s found in a window in the lower right-hand corner of the program’s GUI. If the function says -1.00, it’s time to switch sides. Note what makes the program’s position better and determine where you went wrong before continuing the game. The program is a training tool and this is part of the training. Save all your games for future study.

Limit your use of the redo or undo option, that little button that allows you to take a move back. I recommend two or three take backs per game. However, you need to fully understand why your move was bad when you take it back. Obviously, the computer shows you but there’s more to it. You need to go a few moves back and see if a previous move created the problem. Research the problem, don’t simply move on. I have a special rule regarding take backs. If I take back a move, I cannot take back the new move I make. This forces me to really look at the position in greater detail. Of course, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be hard to analyze a position in detail. Therefore, beginners can use the blunder alert aka “coach is watching” option. This will cause the program to let you know you’ve made a bad decision and let you take back the move. It won’t tell you what move you should make, just that your move is not so great.

I encourage you to try out crazy ideas against the computer. It’s not like the program is going to tell you your out of your mind (well, Fritz might). Try a strange move and see what happens. Use the program to explore ideas. Learning comes from exploration. When beginners first start playing, they make wild moves and try things more advanced players wouldn’t consider. I love playing against my students for this very reason. Not because I’m going to punish them for a weird move but because that weird move forces me to look at the position differently. As beginners improve, they start becoming card carrying members of The Church of Opening Theory. They play book moves and stop taking chances. You know all those guys that have openings and variations named after them. They took chances. Don’t go crazy playing unorthodox moves but do some exploring. Use all the training tools that come with the program.

Chess programs have come a long way and have become much better at playing chess. Opening and endgame play by the program has greatly improved, although I do the greatest damage to Fritz in the endgame. Speaking of which, beginners need to improve their endgame play. Set up endgame positions found in books and play them against the program. You can do the same with middle-game positions. However, be careful when trying to employ tactics against the computer. The computer is a master tactician. If it let’s you execute a fork, for example, be assured it will get that material back in a few moves. Nothing if life or chess is free. Use your chess program as a sparring partner but don’t neglect human play. Using the program’s two dimensional board constantly can throw your game off a bit when you sit down and play on a real board. You can remedy this by playing out your program game moves on a real chess set. Well, there you have it. Some quick advice on computer training. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Do It Yourself

“Remember boys, chess can’t be taught, Chess can only be learned,” So said Mikhail Botvinnik, father of the Russian School of Chess. What he meant was that most progress occurs when the student is alone, working through his or her studies. In chess, we often learn best what we learn independently. My fellow chess teachers and coaches might find this an odd statement from a guy that teaches and coaches chess for a living but I prefer my students to be self learners. If I expect students to teach themselves. What’s my role? I’m simply a guide who can answer questions and point students in the right direction. In the end, it’s the student who does all the work.

You really should be a self learner when it comes to chess for two reasons. First, you’ll learn a lot more when trying to work through problems and positions by yourself. Second, do you really want to pay a high hourly rate for something you can do at little cost? Of course you should have access to a teacher to help you along the way, but don’t depend on them for all of your learning.

Improving your chess is a hands on learning experience the same way music is. It’s a combination of theory and practice, or studying and playing. It’s a balancing act between both with one being needed to achieve the other. You can know all the theory in the world but unless you’ve tested that theory out on the board, you’ll never really improve. Shouldn’t knowing theory be enough to make sound decisions any time you play? No! Take the game’s numerous principles into consideration. There are times when principles are bent in order to gain a better position. The principles don’t tell you exactly when to bend them. Only actual play will show you where this works and where it doesn’t. Practice also helps to cement theory into your memory.

As I first mentioned, learning should primarily be an independent process. A student thirsty for chess knowledge and armed with a good chess book is going to learn a lot more working through the book than having me explain the book to them word for word. I have my students work through books and use me to explain ideas they don’t fully understand (only after they work at it for a while). Of course, you have to be motivated to be an independent learner. Many people rely on teachers because the teacher forces the student to adhere to a schedule. However, after paying the hourly rate, the student goes home and studies the teacher’s lesson. Sounds like the student is doing independent study! Most people who fall in love with chess tend to be motivated to learn. They fall under the spell of chess lust. They lust for chess knowledge which is great until they get a bad case of TMI or Too Much Information!

I had to transfer all of my chess teaching stuff to a new laptop this weekend. It took ten hours to transfer roughly 400 GB of books, videos, training software, my own chess writing, etc. I only transferred the most important materials. My first thought when starting the transfer process was, how does anyone learn independently with so many choices of training material? I have my adult students who are new to chess start off with books written for kids. They are not allowed to study adult books until they’ve read three children’s books I recommend. Kid’s books give clear explanations that can easily be grasped. After they’ve gone through the books do we start talking about apps and programs for training. The secret to avoiding a bad case of TMI? Don’t worry about everything available to help you improve. Simply concentrate on where you need to improve and seek advice from someone who can determine where you need to work on your playing. This is where teachers come in. I sit down with my students, play a few games and then analyze those games. This allows me to determine where the student needs work and point them in the right direction. I suggest books or training programs geared towards their level of play at this point.

Surprisingly, a lot of learning is subliminal. A student plays through the games of a master and tries to follow the action on the board. This student sees a move that follows a principle they learned about and may have forgotten. Now that principle is cemented into their memory. The same student might play through a game they lost trying to determine where they went wrong. Even though they might not see the problem move clearly, they subliminally notice other important things about the game that will become part of their playing thought process. We learn a lot more than we think we do. At the age of thirteen, Botvinnik spent countless hours analyzing his games in order to improve.

The self learner should always know why something is actually important. This can get tricky because you often have to read between the lines. Here’s an example of what I mean: The Knight, Bishop and King against lone King endgame. I use this endgame example in my upcoming book. I did a lot of research regarding this type of endgame because it’s tricky. The majority of endgame books I read stated this is an important endgame to know. Really, how many players find themselves in this type of endgame? Not many. Why this endgame is important has to do with piece coordination. You should learn this endgame because it will teach you how to coordinate your pieces which can be helpful during the entire game. The point here is that if you know why something you’re learning is important, you’ll be able to apply it to your play successfully. I’m a big fan of this endgame situation and share it with my students. However, I never teach it in terms of endgame play.

A lot of your learning takes place when you absorb an idea and run with it, trying it out in your games. The great thing about chess is that you can have fun putting you new found knowledge to the test by playing. You learn something and test it out. It doesn’t always work out the first time around, but stick with it. Principled play always wins over unprincipled play. Be a self learner. Seriously, you’ll get more out of your studies. Of course, I’m happy to take your money. However, I’m still going to make you learn on your own. If a chess teacher says you can’t learn the game on your own, there’s something suspicious regarding that teacher’s motives. Try it out. In fact here’s a little self learner homework. Play through this game and find a principle that applies to every move made. In fairness, I did what I’m asking you to do last night. Enjoy!

Correspondence Chess

Correspondence chess is looked down upon by many over the board players. Their biggest complaint? The use of chess engines for analysis. Of course, the very people that claim this form of chess to be rubbish spend their waking hours using chess engines to help them find moves and then commit those moves to memory for future use. The ICCF or International Correspondence Chess Federation (recognized by FIDE), decided to allow engine use due to problems inherent with online cheating. Some websites have claimed to have developed anti cheating algorithms that have eliminated a larger percentage of cheating. However, someone always comes up with a new way to cheat and those websites are back to square one. The ICCF solved this problem by simply allowing engines to be consulted. Can you quickly become a Correspondence Grandmaster by letting your chess engine to think for you? Absolutely not. In fact, you’ll get absolutely nowhere by doing so!

It’s a combination of human play and computer generated research, starting with the opening. You have to be very creative during the opening phase of the game. Your computer program will ruin your game if you let it decide your opening moves. The majority of ICCF games are won because of good human opening preparation. While I teach a variety of openings to my students, I would have never increased my knowledge to the point it’s at today had I not taken up correspondence chess. An advantage gained during the opening can make a huge difference during the middle game, even with computer assistance guiding players. A quick tip: Never consider a computer move suggestion unless you completely understand why it was made! This means you have to research the lines suggested relentlessly. It’s the opening research that lays the crucial foundation for the game. Here’s how you do it.

You need a good database and chess engine. I use ChessBase and Komodo. You have to have a large database of games from which to craft your opening. Fortunately, correspondence chess is played slowly so you have plenty of time for research during the game. You start by choosing an opening you want to play. I suggest sticking with openings you already know. The preparation is hard enough without adding the additional task learning something new to the mix. The key here is to create a custom opening book. You do this by pouring through your database, looking for games that use your opening. Create a separate database for these games. The next step is to create an opening book. Don’t rely on a commercial opening book. Creating an opening book from scratch forces you to become intimately acquainted with your opening and it’s variations. While some players will create an opening book that covers sixty moves, thirty should be plenty. Wait, isn’t that a bit large? Yes it is, but correspondence chess requires it. Once you have the opening book set up, play through it and look for possible weaknesses that might create problems for your opponent. Chess engines may be excellent at certain aspects of the game but they can still tripped up, at least for a brief second or two. Weaknesses can be moves or entire lines that force your opponent to resort to second and third choice engine generated moves. Remember, engines are great at tactics so consider moves that restrict tactical play. You’re not going to beat an engine by gaining a material advantage because the engine will always gain the material back. Play for even trades and better pawn structure going into the endgame.

The middle game requires a great deal of research, starting with the detailed analysis of lines. The idea is to explore your own ideas and alternative ideas the engine creates. This can be difficult because the engine is going to give you it’s best or top choice. Therefore, you have to enter your choices and see where the engine goes with them. To find the computer’s alternative choices, watch the engine’s thought line in the lower left hand corner of the screen and write down the first move of each line the engine is working through. That’s your reference point. When you have a number of candidate moves, start exploring each one in detail. Don’t rely on the computer’s top choice until you do some exploration of alternative moves. Often, an alternative move can create problems for your opponent later on, many moves into the game’s future. You have to be creative.

Thankfully, the endgame is a bit simpler to play through because the principles are well defined. I highly suggest knowing the pawn positions that lead to a draw and those that lead to promotion. While a Knight, Bishop and King versus King mate can be bungled by the average club player, don’t expect the engine to screw it up. If you see yourself heading into an endgame where you’ll face this specific situation, capture one of those minor pieces. It’s better to draw than lose.

Correspondence chess really helps improve your over the board play because you’re forced to really study while playing the game. However, you have to be creative and not let the chess engine make all your moves. Don’t accept the first suggestion your engine makes. Do the research. You need to have roughly a 1700 rating to not lose your mind. I say this because there’s a lot of subtle positional ideas to consider and you have to have a good foundation in order to comprehend those ideas. If you’re new to chess, find a friend you can play correspondence chess with via email. Set a time limit of three days for each move. During your allotted move time, play though the moves you come up and see where they go. Rather than use a chess engine, play both sides of the board before emailing your friend the move you’re going to make. See if you can come up with the best opposition response to your candidate move. You’ll learn a lot about the game and prepare yourself for playing correspondence chess at the ICCF in the future. Here’s a correspondence game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Middle Game Evaluation

During the opening, we play for centralized control, moving our pawns and pieces to their most active squares. The opening principles essentially tell us what to move, when to move it and where to move it to. Things aren’t as clear cut during the middle game. With so many pawns and pieces on the board, move choices grow exponentially. This is why middle-game principles are far less defined compared to those used during the opening. Determining a course of action becomes more difficult during this phase. How do you determine exactly what you should do? By first evaluating the position and then creating a plan based on that evaluation.

I had a student ask me about middle game planning last Friday during a coaching session. He asked me how I created my own middle game plans. Most beginning and intermediate players don’t know how to properly create a plan for the middle game because they don’t know how to evaluate a position. Beginner’s tend to see all of the pawns and pieces jumbled up on the board with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement. They become easily overwhelmed. Intermediate players, on the other hand, may have a better idea as to what’s going on but don’t have a logical, orderly method for analyzing the position. This can lead to time trouble during tournaments and time troubles leads to poor move choices. Because there’s so much going on during a typical middle game position, you have to streamline the process of analysis. Here’s how I present it to my students (this is also the way I explain it in the middle game section of my upcoming book).

Evaluating the Position

Creating an effective plan requires the careful evaluation of a position. Experienced players thoroughly evaluate a position before considering a move. Beginners become overwhelmed trying to evaluate or analyze a position because they can’t determine what’s actually going on. To evaluate a position, ask yourself a few questions regarding the material present within that position. These questions are the key to creating a meaningful plan of action. Here’s what you need to focus on and the questions you should ask yourself:

The material value of your pawns and pieces compared to that of your opponent. If there’s material equality, both players have an equal amount of material in terms of relative value. If there’s a material advantage, one player has more material than the other Add up relative value of both player’s pawns and pieces and compare the two numbers. Who has the advantage?

The individual power of the pieces belonging to both players compared to their overall relative value. You might discover, after looking at both player’s pawns and pieces, that the relative value of both armies is equal. However, there’s a difference between relative value and power. If both players have the same number of pawns and the same number and type of pieces, power is equal. However, let’s say that each player’s armies have a relative value of nine. If one player has a Queen and the other player has a Rook and four weak pawns, the player with the Queen has greater power. When evaluating a position, compare the individual power of both players pieces to one another. Who has the more powerful pieces?

The Quality of the Individual Pawns. While pawns share the same relative value, they can vary in strength. If both players have five pawns each, the overall relative value is equal. However, if three of your pawns are weak, while all of your opponent’s pawns are all strong, your opponent has the better pawns. Examine the pawns belonging to both players, looking for weaknesses and strengths. Whose pawns are better?

Pawn Structure. A pawn’s strength or weakness is directly related to pawn structure. While good pawn structure is crucial throughout the entire game, it’s critical during the middle and endgame. Who has the better better pawn structure? When both player’s pawn structure is equal in strength, can you weaken your opponent’s pawn structure which can weaken their overall position?

King Safety. If your King hasn’t castled it’s not safe. If your King has castled, can you improve his safety? If your opponent’s King hasn’t castled, can you stop that King from castling, leaving it vulnerable to attack? Can you open up attacking lines leading to your opponent’s King? Can you make your King safer and your opponent’s King less safe?

Pawn and piece coordination. Pawn and pieces must always work together throughout the game. Pawns and pieces that are coordinated or cooperating with one another can deliver strong attacks. Look at the relationship between your pawns and pieces and those of your opponent. How well are your pawns and pieces working together?

By asking these questions when evaluating a position, you’ll be able to create an accurate plan. If you see that you have a problem, create a plan to resolve that problem. If you discover that your opponent has a problem, create a plan to take advantage of that problem. Only after you’ve evaluated a position can you then create a worthwhile plan.

After evaluating a position, you have to create a plan regarding what pawn or piece to move and where and when to move it. A plan is a series of small steps that allows you to achieve a larger goal. Positions can change drastically from one move to the next and because of this, your plan needs to be flexible. A flexible plan is one that gives you more than one option. If your plan is rigid, it has only one option and, if the position changes in such a way that your plan no longer works, the will plan fail. If your plan’s flexible and the position goes in an unexpected direction, that plan will be better suited for dealing with this sudden positional change. Plans change often during the course of the middle-game which is why they must be flexible.

Your priorities, when creating middle game plans, should be King Safety and piece mobility. When your King’s safe, you can use your pieces for attacking rather than defensive purposes. The middle-game is where the majority of the attacking takes place, so your pieces must be ready to fight. If they have to protect an unsafe King, they become defensively tied down. However, even if your King’s safe, your pieces can’t attack until they’re mobile, placed on active squares. Attacks are built up slowly during the middle-game, so moving your pieces to more active squares will give them more power which helps in creating stronger attacks. The more mobility a piece has, the greater it’s power.

The middle game is the hardest phase to play through. With less defined principles and so many pawns and pieces in play, choosing the right move can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. However, focusing on the correct positional issues and asking the right questions makes things a lot easier. Analytical questions are powerful tools. They’re like having a metal detector to aid you when searching for that needle in the haystack. The focus points and subsequent questions are exactly what I use for middle game analysis (that and a lucky horseshoe – just kidding). Believe me when I say that I’ve been able to stay out of middle game trouble using the ideas I written about here. Try it out. It’s better than sitting in front of a board, sweating, watching the clock grind down as you remain clueless (yeah, I know, a bit dramatic) while your opponent smiles because he or she has a plan! Here’s a game to play through. Try using what you’ve learned here and analyze the middle game move for move. Doing this will help you remember the ideas I just presented. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Writing a Chess Book

After writing a number of articles for The Chess Improver, I was offered the chance, thanks to Nigel’s recommendation, to write a chess book. Within weeks, I had signed a publishing contract. Of course, I did little thinking before jumping into the project because I didn’t want to lose this opportunity. I was given six weeks to write the entire book because the publisher need one written quickly. The book would be 176 pages. I’ve written this article to give other budding chess writers an idea of what they’re getting into should they decide to write a book.

Having written for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and doing it. I know many people who claim to be writers yet spend more time talking about being writers than actually putting words to paper. Writing doesn’t count for anything unless the words find their way to the page. Being contracted means you have to write or you’ll be sued for any advance money if you don’t produce something. The prospects of ending up in an English Court (the publishing company is based in the UK) for doing absolutely no writing served as a great incentive to get busy (while I’d like to experience the English court system, I’d rather do so as a spectator). Given the short period of time in which I had to write my first book, I knew I had to sit down everyday and commit words to paper. I write best in the mornings, so each morning I’d be writing by 6:30 am, stopping only to go teach classes. On that first day, I sat down in front of my laptop, staring at what seemed like the world’s largest blank page.

The hardest thing to face when writing any type of book is that first page, knowing hundreds of blank pages sit behind it. You can’t think about all the pages that haven’t been written. You have to think about the single page your writing. Otherwise, you’ll become overwhelmed and unable to move forward. However, before you start writing, you need a plan. I created an outline, laying out what needed to be covered in the book. Create an outline before typing a single word. The outline provides a guide you can follow and helps ensure you don’t leave anything out.

Fortunately, having taught chess for many years, I was able to use my own teaching program the to form the outline. I started with a broader outline first. The book was broken down into four parts: The Rules, The Opening Game, The Middle Game and The Endgame. I moved on to what would be included in these four sections. It’s fairly easy, if you read a lot of chess books, to know what to include in each section. If you’re not a chess teacher, consider looking at chess books, especially those that you’ve enjoyed, to see how they’re laid out. Don’t worry, you haven’t crossed the plagiarism line yet. You’re merely looking for a template to base your outline on. It’s important to use other chess books to create an outline because you want to make sure you don’t leave anything out. However, if you’re writing a book for beginners, don’t use a book geared for advanced players to create your outline. This brings me to another important point, don’t write above your audiences comprehension level. When you get really good at something (not that I know what I’m doing), it comes easily to you. Too many teachers assume their students will understand their explanations because they understand their own explanations. The reason the teacher understand the words coming out of his or her mouth is because they know the subject inside and out. Meanwhile, their students sit silently, becoming more glassy eyed with each passing minute. Assume your reader has no prior knowledge of the game.

Surprisingly, the hardest part of writing this book was explaining the rules. I teach chess visually, with a board and pieces. My students can see how the pieces move in a three dimensional environment. Explaining how the pieces move using only words to do so, isn’t easy. It’s as if you’re suddenly reduced to one dimension. Here’s where you dig through your collection of chess books. Read five or more authors and see how they describe pawn and piece movement. Then sit down and write an explanation of pawn and piece movement, in your own words. Castling was a challenge because there are many conditions that must be met in order to castle. I had to create a very simple explanation for each condition and group them in a logical order. I wrote, edited, wrote some more, edited some more, and eventually came up with a clear explanation of castling and it’s rules. Editing is what makes a book flow fluidly.

Edit each section as you go along. Write freely without editing and then go back and edit when you’ve finished a single section or chapter! Remove redundant or repetitive sentences and statements. Often, we say the same thing twice when trying to make a point. This wastes space. Cut the fat and your writing will thank you for it! Don’t get too wordy, a problem that’s a terminal condition for this writer. Your readers want to know how to play the game of chess and probably don’t have the time or patience to listen to your old college stories that you use as analogies. Analogies are great, but only use those that everyone can relate to. Planning your vacation to Fiji is not a good analogy for middle game planning unless your travel plans are undefined and prone to chaos.

Limit your use of sophisticated or “big” words. That’s what we have academics for. If your readers have to use a dictionary to figure out what your saying, they’re not learning chess! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in a few big words now and again, but don’t overdo it. Keep your explanations as simple as possible. Your readers will love you for it, or at least not mutter four letter words when hearing your name. Always assume your reader has never played chess. Keep it simple because the more complicated you make an explanation, the more lost your readers become. It’s not that your readers are simpletons. Far from it. They’re new to chess. Even if one of your readers is a genius, he or she will want an easy to understand explanation of the game not a PhD dissertation.

Always write from your heart. Share your passion for chess with your audience. Readers want to share your passionate for chess or they wouldn’t be reading your book. Always be truthful. Don’t tell your readers that they’ll become brilliant chess players in seven days. Don’t make any other guarantee than with hard work, their game will improve. Honesty is important. Encourage readers to achieve their goals as long as they’re realistic. Think of your reader a family member your helping with their studies (a family member you like). The best thing I got out of writing my book? It made me a better chess teacher. Be a teacher. The world needs them desperately. Try writing a chess book. You learn a lot about chess by doing so. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Love Thy Gambit

With the exception of sacrificing material to gain a positional advantage, it’s generally not a good idea to give away pawns and pieces, especially during the opening. However, a gambit asks you to do just that, give up material at the start of the game. The player employing a gambit will give up material within the first few moves. The material given are pawns. The majority of gambits are executed by white. While most gambits involve sacrificing one pawn, the Danish Gambit sacrifices three. Gambits can be very effective but must be played carefully. All gambits have the same goal, gaining a positional advantage. A positional advantage in the opening is the ability to develop your pieces rapidly. The player who controls the center first has the advantage. Let’s look at the King’s Gambit first. After the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. f4, we reach this position.

White offers black the f pawn. This is the gambit. Black can either except the gambit or decline it. If black captures the pawn, exf4, black gains a slight material advantage but gains doubled “f” pawns and now has only one central pawn. However, taking the pawn doesn’t mean you’ll lose the game. As for white, at some point the “d” pawn will be move to d4, giving white a classical pawn center. With a pawn on d4, white will be able to rapidly develop the minor pieces to active squares. Play continues with 2…exf4, 3. Nf3…g5, 4. d4. We reach the following position.

Black has taken the pawn with 2…exf4. It’s tempting for white to play 2. d4 instead of 2. Nf3. However, doing so would create problems for white. After 2. d4, black would play 2…Qh4+, forcing the white King to move. Trying to block the check with 3. g3, would lead to a heavy loss of material for white. The black pawn on f4 becomes dangerous when the black Queen is on h4, which is why 2.N3 is played. The f3 Knight stops the Queen from moving to h4. After 4. d4, white has a strong pawn center and can develop the minor pieces quickly. Now let’s look at the Danish Gambit, which starts with 1. e4…e5, 2. d4.

Here, white offers the d4 pawn to black. Rather than trying to defend it, which would lead to positional complications, black accepts the gambit with 2…exd4. In the Danish Gambit, white offers the “c” and “b” pawns as well. Play continues with 3. c3…dxc3, 4. Bc4…cxb2, 5. Bxb2, arriving at the following position.

White’s down two pawns, leaving black ahead in material. However, black is behind in development. None of black’s minor pieces have moved, nor does black have a centralized pawn. White, on the other hand, has a pawn controlling the center and two Bishops that control central squares as well. The Bishops are also aimed at black’s King-side pawns, making the prospect of King-side castling risky for black. By giving up a few pawns, white has gained a huge lead in development and has the positional advantage. White has followed the opening principles while black has ignored them, hunting pawns instead. Our Last example is the Evan’s Gambit. The key position is reached after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. b4.

Here, white offers black the b4 pawn. Time is critical during the opening. Chess players refer to time as tempo. The player that gains tempo has an advantage over the player who loses tempo. During the opening, you want to gain control of the center before your opponent does, making it a race whose winner is the first player to achieve this. One thing you don’t want to do during the opening is to move the same piece over and over again. Doing so will cause you to lose tempo. In the above position, black has to move the Bishop because it’s being attacked by a pawn. Since the Bishop has to move, costing black tempo, it captures the pawn with 4…Bxb4. Black captures the pawn as compensation for this loss of time. However, white plays 5. c3, and the black Bishop has to move once more. Play continues with. 5…Bc5, 6. O-O…Nf6, 7. d4…exd4, 8. cxd4…Be7, arriving at the following position.

White has strong central pawns, two minor pieces in play, and has castled. Black, on the other hand, has lost tempo and doesn’t have a strong presence in the center. His King hasn’t castled and black’s position needs improvement. Studying gambits will teach you a great deal about development during the opening. They also lead to exciting and sometimes dangerous games. I encourage you to try them. However, precise play is required.

It’s well worth exploring gambits as a beginner because you’ll learn a great deal about development and tempo. Gambits can lead to exciting games that keep you on your positional toes, so to speak. Of course, you don’t see gambits played at a professional level, but as a beginner or improving player, don’t let the stop you. I’m sure the opening theory snobs will have a few things to say about my love of gambits, such as “what a rotten idea, and you call your self a chess teacher.” As the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” It’s a good day for me when I can simply please Mrs. Patterson! See you next week.

Hugh Patterson

Middlegame Principles

During the middle-game the number of possible positions is so large that well defined principles won’t work. The opening principles literally tell us what to move, where to move it and when to move it. During the middle-game, we rely on generalized principles that give us a broader idea of what to do in a given situation. The goal of the middle-game is to gain a material and positional advantage going into the the endgame. There are many ways to reach this goal and how you achieve it depends completely on the position. As with the opening, any move made during this phase of the game should be guided by a middle-game principle. Refer to these principles until you have them committed to memory.

Evaluation Before Planning

Always evaluate a position before creating a plan. You need to know exactly what’s going on within a position before you can create a plan of action.

King Safety and Mobility Come First

If your King is safe, your pieces can go on the offensive and attack. However, pieces need mobility to attack, so always mobilize your pieces. Always make sure your King is safe before attacking your opponent’s position.

The More Active a Piece, The More Power it Has

When a piece is active, it controls or attacks a large number of squares. The greater the level of activity, the more power a piece has. Pieces are most active when positioned centrally. Always look for ways to activate and further activate your pieces, especially towards the center.

Be Ready to Develop Rapidly to Any Part of the Board

One of the reasons pieces have greater power when centrally located is because they have greater mobility. Centralized mobility gives a piece the ability to move to one side of the board or the other quickly. If it’s needed to suddenly help with an attack or defend a position elsewhere, it can rapidly respond. Move pieces to squares that allow them access to to any part of the board.

Always Count Attackers and Defenders and Compare Their Relative Value

Always count the number of attackers and defenders before committing to an attack. Then compare their individual relative values. You’ll want to have more attackers than defenders when attacking and more defenders than attackers when defending. However, compare the relative value of the individual pieces involved to make sure you’re not going to lose material when the exchanges start.

Start the Exchange of Material with the Unit of Least Value

When exchanging material during an attack, start the exchange with a piece of lesser or equal value first. Never start an attack with a piece worth more than the target piece unless you’re sacrificing that piece.

Never Capture Pawns and Pieces Unless it Helps Your Position

Never consider attacking or capturing a piece, regardless of the material gain, if it weakens your position. A weakened position is harder to correct than a material imbalance.

Repair Weaknesses Before Attacking

If you have a weak point in your position, try to strengthen it before considering an attack. Weaknesses are a long term liability.

Exchange Pieces When it Helps Your Defense

Sometimes, you’ll end up with a middle-game position in which your own pieces get in each other’s way. This means that some of your pieces have limited mobility. If you exchange the blocking pieces with enemy pieces (as long as the exchange is balanced) you free your blocked in pieces and remove a few potential enemy attackers from the fight.

Put Rooks on Open Files

Rooks are great for controlling open files. If you see an open files and have an available Rook, put that Rook on the open file.

Consider Your Pawn Structure Before Making Any Pawn Move

Before moving a pawn, determine if doing so will weaken that pawn or weaken the surrounding pawn structure. Weak pawns have to be defended by pieces, which takes those pieces out of the fight.

Make Pawn Moves to Open Up Lines

The opening principles tell us not to make too many pawn moves at the start of the game. While we’ve mobilized our pieces during the opening, we want to be able to further mobilize our pieces during the middle-game. Make pawn moves that open up lines for your pieces.

Be Aware of Counterattacks

Beginner’s often build up what looks like a winning attack. All their pieces are correctly lined up and they’ve carefully thought things through. However, they’ve forgotten to do one thing, look at their own position to see if their opponent has a counterattack that will do more damage. Always examine your opponent’s position for possible counterattacks before launching your own attack.

Exchange Material to relieve Positional Pressure

There are times when your opponent will have a large number of pieces amassed on your side of the board, giving your opponent attacking options. You may not be able create an adequate defense in time to stop the attack. However, if you could immediately exchange some of your pieces for theirs, you’d weaken the attack and relieve the positional pressure. When enemy pieces are putting your position under pressure, exchange material to relieve that pressure.

Use Knights in Closed Positions and Bishops in Open Positions

Bishops are long distance pieces and need mobility to be useful during the game. When the position is open, with diagonals void of pawns and pieces, the Bishop should be used over the Knight. When the position is closed, there’s not a lot of room for long distance attackers to move. This is where the Knight is extremely powerful because of its ability to jump over pawns and pieces. In close positions, the Knight is more valuable than the Bishop.

Don’t Defend a Weak Point if it Ruins Your Game

The are time when you simply cannot defend a weak point in your position. There may be too many attackers or defending the weak point might create additional weak points. If a defensive position is hopeless, move on and further strengthen the rest of your position.

Hugh Patterson

Pawn Types and Pawn Structure

The pawn has the lowest relative value and because of this, it can keep a piece off of any square the pawn controls. Pawns also have the ability to promote into a piece when reaching the other side of the board. These two factors make the pawn a valuable asset. However, pawns cannot move backwards, have a limited attacking range and are easily subject to capture if not protected, which can make them a liability. Whether a pawn is an asset or a liability depends on what type of pawn it is. While pawns share the same relative value, some pawns are stronger than others. A pawn’s strength or weakness depends on its relationship to other pawns in your army.

When pawns are on their starting squares at the beginning of the game, they’re equal in both relative value and strength. However, to give your pieces mobility, you have to move a few of those pawns. When you move a pawn, it’s strength changes in value because it’s relationship to the other pawns in your army changes. Whether or not a pawn is protected determines it’s strength. Unprotected pawns are weak because they need to be defended. While pieces can be used to defend pawns, those pieces become tied down to defensive duties and cannot participate in any attacks. With a few exceptions, when a piece is tied down to the defense of a pawn it’s lost it’s power. The best way to defend a pawn is with another pawn using pawn chains. Before we examine pawn chains, let’s explore pawn strengths and weaknesses based on pawn type.

Doubled Pawns

Doubled pawns are two friendly pawns ( belonging to the same army) who occupy the same file, leaving them unable to defend one another. In the diagram below, white has doubled pawns on the “c” file and no pawns on the “b” or “d” files to defend them. If it’s black to move, the Bishop could capture the c3 pawn. If it’s white’s turn, white would have to move either the c3 pawn to c4 or the Knight to a4 to defend the c3 pawn. Doubled pawns occur after an exchange of material in which one player is forced to capture back using a pawn adjacent to another pawn. Doubling your opponent’s pawn is a good way to weaken their position.

Isolated Pawns

An isolated pawn, is a pawn with no friendly pawns on the adjacent files. Without friendly pawns on the files immediately to the left and right of the isolated pawn, it will have to be defended by a piece should an attack occur. In the diagram above, the c3 pawn is isolated. Isolated pawns are considered extremely weak. Often, players will turn one of their opponent’s pawns into an isolated pawn and attack it, forcing an enemy piece to be tied down to it’s defense.

Backwards Pawns

A backwards pawn is one whose neighboring friendly pawns have moved too far ahead of it along the adjacent files to defend it should an attack occur. If a backwards pawn is attacked, a piece will have to come to its defense. As with doubled and isolated pawns, your opponent will always try to attack the pawn, forcing you to use piece to defend it. Backwards pawns are weak.

In the above diagram, the c4 pawn is the backwards pawn. White’s “b” and “d” pawns are ahead of the\is backwards pawn and cannot defend it. Meanwhile, the black Knight is attacking the c4 and b5 pawns. White has no piece that can immediately defend the attacked pawns, so black will win one of them. If white leaves the pawn on c4 the Knight will capture it. If white moves the c4 pawn to c5, the Knight will capture the b5 pawn because the c4 pawn is no longer protecting it.

Passed Pawns

The pawns we’ve looked at have all been weak and can thus damage an otherwise good position. However, there is a type of pawn that’s extremely powerful, so much so, that an opponent facing this type of pawn will do anything to stop it. This is the passed pawn. A passed pawn is one that can reach it’s promotion square because they’re no enemy pawns that can block it or capture it on adjacent squares. Therefore, a piece will have to be used stop this dangerous pawn. While having isolated, backwards or doubled pawns forces you to use a piece for defensive purposes, the passed pawn forces your opponent to stop the promotion by tying up one of their pieces!

In the above diagram, white has a passed “d” pawn. Black’s Rook is going to have to stop the promotion by moving to d8. Black won’t be able to use the Rook for attacking puposes until the passed pawn is dealt with. To make matters worse, both the c2 pawn and white Rook can help the passed pawn reach its destination square. There’s a saying, “Rooks belong behind passed pawns”, and doing just that will help white win the game! Strive to create a passed pawn because you’ll either promote the pawn, which adds to your material or tie up one or more of your opponent’s pieces.

Pawn Structure and Pawn Formations

Pawn structure is the geometric relationship of pawns to one another. Certain geometric arrangements strengthen pawns associated with those arrangements while others weaken them. We call these arrangements pawn formations. The weak pawn types we’ve looked at result from poor pawn structure. Therefore, when moving a pawn, always consider the outcome of your actions in terms of it’s effect on your pawn structure. The same holds true when capturing with a pawn.

Pawn Islands

A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated from other pawns or groups of pawns by at least one file. Pawn islands can be strong or weak, depending on how the pawns within each island are structured. The more pawn islands you have, the more difficult it is to defend them simultaneously. Conversely, the fewer pawn islands you have, the easier their overall defense.

In the above diagram, white has two pawn islands while black has four. In addition to having fewer pawn islands, white’s two pawn islands are strong. The white King protects the three pawns on f2, g2 and h2. The pawns on the “a,” “b” and “c” files form a pawn chain in which the pawns protect one another (we’ll look at pawn chains next). What about black’s pawn islands? They’re weak. While the King protects the h7 pawn who is otherwise isolated, black has doubled pawns on the “f” file, another isolated pawn on the “d” file and two pawns that will have little chance of moving past white’s three Queen-side pawns. Black has a number of pawn problems, while white has none.

Pawn Chains

A pawn chain is a group of pawns that are lined up along a diagonal with each pawn supporting the one in front of it. Pawn chains have a starting and ending point, the base and head. The base of a pawn chain is the pawn at the bottom of the chain closest to the player. The head of the pawn chain is the pawn that is furthest out on the board, away from the player. Pawn chains typically range in size from two to four pawns in length. In the above diagram, white’s pawn chain is three pawns in length. The chain’s base is the a2 pawn while the head is the c4 pawn.

Pawn chains provide an excellent way to strengthen your centrally located pawns. It’s a good idea to create pawn chains early in the game. However, piece mobility is crucial during the opening. Thus, before creating a pawn chain, make sure doing so doesn’t block your piece’s ability to enter the game.

Pawn Barrier

A pawn barrier is a wall of three pawns along the same file that shield the King after castling. The barrier provides the King both safety and defensive options for preventing potential checkmates. However, when any of these pawns are moved off of their shared rank, the barrier can be weakened and King safety declines.

Pawn Storm

A pawn storm is a coordinated grouping of pawns, often sharing the same rank. Pawn storms are used to open lines that lead to the enemy King. Pawns in this type of formation can bulldoze their way across the board, pushing pieces out of their way due to the pawn’s low relative value . The only drawback to a pawn storm is having to maintain the protection of the pawns in this formation, primarily by using using pieces.

Pawn Duo

A pawn duo is a pair of pawns aligned on adjacent files. Their strength lies in their ability to protect one another as they move across the board.

In the above diagram, white’s f2, g2 and h2 pawns form a pawn barrier, while the b3 and c3 pawns make up a pawn duo. Black has a pawn storm along the sixth rank. However, black’s Queen has to protect the “c,” “d” and “e” pawns while the Bishop protects the f6 pawn. Both black pieces are tied down to defending these pawns.
There you have a brief introduction to pawn type and structure. Strong pawns and pawn structure must be maintained throughout the game from start to finish. Remember, the weaker your pawns, the weaker your position. A healthy pawn is a winning pawn.

Now that we have a better understanding of pawn types and structures, we can better determine the course we must take in order to have a winning middle-game. As with the other phases of the game, we have to create a plan that allows us to successfully launch attacks and gain a material advantage. Having a material advantage, having more material than your opponent, helps greatly going into the endgame! To create a strong plan, you first have to evaluate the position which we’ll look at next!

Hugh Patterson

Connect Your Rooks

Rooks are the second most powerful attacker in your army, yet beginners tend to neglect them as if they didn’t exist! Too often, the novice player will leave their Rooks sitting in the corners on their starting squares. A piece on its starting square has little value until it enters the game. A trapped Rook has no value until it gains it’s freedom. We want to activate our Rooks and doing so means getting them out of the corners. We have to get our Rooks into the game. However, getting into the game doesn’t mean that Rooks should be thrust onto the board during the opening. Remember, minor pieces before major pieces. It means that both Rooks should have the freedom to patrol their starting ranks in order to offer protection to pawns and pieces during the opening as well as controlling any open files or half open files, especially the “e” and “d” files.

The idea of coordination between the pawns and pieces is a concept beginners should embrace. While pawns and pieces should be coordinated throughout the entire game, it’s extremely important during the opening phase. Pawns and pieces working together make it much more difficult for your opponent to gain centralized control or build up attacks that subsequently weaken your position. We know that one of the reasons for castling our King is to get one of the Rooks into the game. It’s a mistake to think that the Rook that was just released from the corner thanks to castling is now active. A Rook on f1, after castling King-side, isn’t doing anything during the opening but helping the King guard the f2 pawn. This Rook is almost active. Then there’s the white Rook on a1. He’s usually trapped as well because our astute beginner knows the dangers of bringing your Queen out early and avoid moving her even one rank up. While both of white’s Rooks are close to being active, they haven’t reached their full opening potential. How do they reach that full potential?

We know that castling gets one Rook out of the corner. However, there’s a second Rook that needs greater access to his starting rank. We know to develop our minor pieces, which gives the Rook access to those squares vacated by the Knights and Bishops. However, there’s the Queen to deal with. The Queen is on her starting square at the beginning of the opening. She stands between one Rook and the other (after castling). To provide freedom for the trapped Rook, we have to move the Queen. Wait a minute, didn’t I say moving the Queen was a bad idea during the opening in previous articles? Actually, I said bringing the Queen our early (towards the center of the board) was a bad idea. Moving the Queen up one rank, either from the first to second rank for white or from the eighth to seventh rank for black, is called for. You’re not bringing your Queen out early, only providing additional mobility for both Rooks. This is called connecting the Rooks and generally serves as the final step of your opening. Take a look at the diagram below.

Whose Rooks have greater mobility or freedom of movement? Knowing what you now do about the power Rooks have when they have an open rank to operate on, the answer should be clear. White’s minor pieces have developed and are no longer occupying their starting squares. White has castled King-side, freeing the trapped h1 Rook and moved the Queen up a rank to d2 which frees the a1 Rook. The white Rooks can now go back and forth along the first rank and lend support where needed. In addition to supporting pawns and pieces throughout the game, Rooks have another important job during the opening.

Take a look at black’s position. Both of black’s Rooks are trapped. Black’s King-side Rook can get into the game when black castles on that side of the board. However, the Queen-side Rook on a8 is going to have to wait until, the Knight, Bishop and Queen move in order to become active. This brings us back to white’s Rooks. If it’s white to move, either the a1 or f1 Rook can move to e1 and check the black King. Since you cannot castle to get out of check, black will have to block the check by moving the c8 Bishop to e6, pinning the Bishop to the King. Rooks have great power of open or half open files.

An open file is one that has no pawns or pieces on it. When a Rook controls an open file, enemy pawns and pieces have to be very careful to avoid moving onto unprotected squares along that file. If they do, the Rook would be able to capture them. A half open file is one that is partially open. Take a look at the diagram below.

Here, the white Rook on e1 controls the open “e” file while the black Rook on b8 controls the half open “b” file. Because white’s Rook controls the “e” file, black cannot move his Rook to e8, otherwise, white’s Rook would capture it and checkmate the black King. Had Black been able to control the “e” file first, white’s Rook would not be able to move to e1 for the same reason. This is why it’s extremely important to gain control of open files before your opponent does. Let’s look at the black Rook. The black Rook is controlling the half open “b” file. The Rook is also attacking the undefended b3 pawn. Should black’s Rook capture this pawn? Absolutely not! If black plays Rxb2, then white plays Re8# (checkmate). Again, always try to take control of open files. Rooks serve many purposes throughout the entire game, especially the endgame. For now, get your Rooks out of the corners and connect them for better opening play. No game to enjoy this week because next week there will be a really long one!

Hugh Patterson

Always Fight for the Center

The three most important tasks we must accomplish during the opening are developing a central pawn, activating our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) centrally and castling. We know not to make too many pawn moves, move the same piece twice nor bring our Queen out early (all during the opening). The astute beginner who embraces these principles will immediately start playing better chess. However, there’s more work to do during the opening including fighting for the center of the board. “Always fight for the center” should be our mantra all the way into the middle-game. The player who controls the center first, exercising greater control of its immediate and surrounding squares will have greater options going forward. However, what happens when both players have equal central control? When both players share in control of the center, the player who fights for greater control comes out ahead. Take a look at the diagram below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. c3…Nf6, we reach the position above. Black’s Knight on f6 is threatening the white e4 pawn. Do we defend it with 5. d3 or do we attack black’s center with 5. d4? During the opening, we want to develop our pawns and pieces towards the center of the board but we also want to further attack the center, especially if doing so prevents our opponent from gaining a stronger position. Although black is making a threat against the e4 pawn, the position is still relatively balanced. The threat to the e4 pawn by black’s f6 Knight can be problematic for black if white decides to castle on move five (5. O-O). Should black then play 5…Nxe4, white can play 6. Re1 and the Knight must retreat. To capture the pawn on e4 and retreat would mean that black moved the Knight three times, something principled play tells us not to do during the opening!

The problem with 5. d3 is that it’s a passive move. Since white is a turn ahead of black due to making the first move, the player commanding the white army should always aim for more aggressive moves, provided those moves follow the opening principles. Don’t play defensively unless you absolutely have to! Therefore, 5. d4 attacks the center, stopping black from gaining further control. After 5. d4…exd4, 6. O-O…O-O, white is slightly better. After 7. cxd4…Be7, white is definitely better. Why? Because white fought for the center rather than playing defensively.

Of course, there will be times when you have to make defensive moves. After all, your opponent might make a move you weren’t prepared for. However, if you have the opportunity to do so, always fight for the center. Let’s look at the position after move seven.

White has established a classical pawn center with pawns on d4 and e4. What’s so great about these two pawns? Since pawns have the lowest relative value, either of the two white pawns can move one square forward and chase either black Knight off of it’s optimal opening square (c6 or f6). This is a good example of how principles are bent (not broken). Principled play tells us we shouldn’t move the same piece (or pawn) multiple times during the opening. However, bending this principle would force one of black’s Knights off of an active square, causing a weakening of black’s central control.

White’s b1 Knight can still develop to c3, while the c1 Bishop has mobility along the c1-h6 diagonal. Black’s Queen-side counterpart, the c8 Bishop is completely blocked in. Black’s position is somewhat weak while white’s is strong. This came about by white fighting for the center. How did white know that 5. d4 would work? Let me introduce you to a concept called board vision.

Board Vision

Board vision is the ability to see all the pawns and pieces, both yours and your opponents, on the chessboard. Seeing all the pawns and pieces means first looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and determining if there are any threats being made against your pawns and pieces. Then look at your pawns and pieces and see if you can make any threats against your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Only after you’ve exercised good board vision, can you then think about possible moves. Beginners tend to look only where the action is. During the opening, they’ll only look at the pawns and pieces closest to the center squares. They miss a potential attacker outside their immediate line of site. Experienced players examine the entire board before considering any moves.

With 5. d4, white challenged black’s control of the center but only after examining the entire board. After carefully looking at the pawns and pieces belonging to both players, white was able to create an attack and subsequent series of moves that allowed the position to favor white. Even though the majority of the pawns and pieces for both sides were still on their starting squares, white still double checked to make sure it was safe to execute his plan. Always fight for the center during the opening.

Piece Activity

Just because you’ve followed the big three opening principles and acquired a good centralized position, doesn’t mean you can’t further develop or activate your pawns and pieces. Always remember that the person your playing has a plan of their own. That plan can sometimes force you to develop a minor piece to a square that isn’t active. When a piece is active, it’s on a square that allows it to have more control of specific squares, such as the board’s central squares. Before claiming you’re finished with your opening, look at your pieces as see if they can move to more active squares. The principle regarding not moving the same piece multiple times during the opening can be bent (not broken) to increase a piece’s activity during the opening. However, you should only do so after you’ve initially developed your other pieces. The same holds true for pawns. After you’ve completed your opening development, you can consider making a few additional pawn moves if they serve a purpose. Often, a player will move the white h2 pawn to h3 to stop the black c8 Bishop from moving to g4 and pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen (d1). Non centralized pawns can also be used to keep your opponent’s pieces off of key squares on your side of the board. The key here is control the center with a pawn or two and only later in the opening make additional pawn moves. As for the Queen, she should only move one square forward in order to connect our Rooks. Fear not, this isn’t bringing your Queen out early! Make sure that your Rooks have the freedom to move back and forth along their starting rank. Rooks trapped in the corners of the board are not in the game. While you don’t want to bring a Rook out onto the board during the opening, they can certainly help to control central squares by being posted on the e and d files. They can also support pawns being pushed towards the enemy. Play for control by fighting for the center. Better to be an attacker than a defender and fighting for the center makes you the aggressor. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson